Monday, January 26, 2009

Where do we stand on Internet Copyright Law?

Do you see the image above the text? I chose it without the artist's approval from this website but traced the origin of the image back to this website. Should I feel guilty about it? I've done it hundreds of times before. If I stand guilty of this crime, I stand guilty of many others too.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume I'm not alone. The Internet is a vast cauldron of video-sharing, link-sharing, knowledge-sharing, and yes, image-sharing. The spirit of the Internet seems to be that of a free culture. We are less concerned with property rights in cyberspace, and more concerned with community and conversation.

I'm writing this essay because I want to know what are the claims to ownership on the Internet. Nobody seems to know the answer to this question. There is no absolute law we can refer to. And if there is an absolute law, then the spirit of the Net seems to challenge that rule, provoke the law, even mock its upholders. But there are also some of us who place a high value on the individual and therefore demand the individual know her work is being shared; we must ask her approval.

If getting an artist's approval to post her image on my site is necessary and universal, then I should probably go back and obtain a plethora of approvals. Surely some will not be granted and then I must find another approval and another. Does it seem to you that this is the way things work on the Net? Or do people merely take what they like (like myself) and showcase it. Keep in mind in no way am I trying to pass off these images as my own. In fact, I credit the artists here. But I do not go so far as to ask each and every one of them if I can post their pictures. Many are in fact dead.

The Internet poses this contradiction. We recognize that file-sharing is rampant and that the wheels and cogs of the Web involve a dissemination of information; and yet we also feel the twinge of our old system of rights, copy rights, property rights, etc. To what extent is cyberspace a common space? And to what extent is it privatized? At what point should one say, "No, that's not yours; that's mine. I know I put it out there for all of you to see, but I only wanted it to appear on my site and not anyone else's."

Luckily nobody has ever said this to me. And if they wanted their image taken down, I would immediately do so. But I do not feel the need--in this wave of free-culture dissemination--to ask each artist for the approval to use their image.

I was provoked into writing this essay because of a post on a favorite blog of mine. The article, entitled "How to use Hyperlinks in Blog Fiction" didn't specifically address copyright, but the nebulous area of Internet copyright turned up in the comments.

Bekah, a blog fiction writer, wrote:

"Yes, linking to things should be fine, although not if you pretend it's your own work. But otherwise, of course that works. But putting non-stock images in blogs-- definitely a copyright infringement, even if you give credit. It is true that a lot of illegal activity occurs on the web, but it's also true that many lawsuits have followed. This isn't likely in any case, but I don't want to get near that."

I don't know much about the "many lawsuits" of Internet copyright law. What I'm more familiar with is the excess of abuses of copyright law. Especially surrounding file sharing. In the music industry in particular, copyright law is bending toward the file-sharers' favor. Apple has removed the copyright protection on its mp3s and the music industry has publicly declared that it will no longer sue individual file-sharers.

Bekah continues:

"That being said, I don't think it'll ever be okay to post someone else's picture on your blog without permission, but I don't think that anyone is suggesting that you can or should do that."

Now, artists who do not want their images shared take precautions. Some photos on Flickr for example will not copy to your hard drive because the artist has formerly set restrictions on them. In this case, it is impossible for me to copy them and the issue is moot. But what about in the cases where I can copy people's pictures. Is it wrong?

Another blogger, who runs an art blog called Vince's Ear, writes:

"Well, Chris that's an interesting question because copyrights and copyright law can be interpreted in a number of different ways, including in the courts. The main thing for me to know is something called "Fair Use." I won't be able to sell a copyrighted image in any certain form, but I can perfectly legally display the image on my site for educational purposes."

He goes on to say:

"Sorry for such a long response but I'd mainly say if a blogger is just putting images on a site, there is no need to worry at all, it's Fair Use. If you were to print and sell the Novel of Life, make sure any illustrations are in the Public Domain, or you have permission if they're not."

I consider my writing educational and therefore the "Fair Use" clause may apply to me. The educational purpose behind this essay (and its adjoining image) is to make people think. But I must be honest here. I pick the images for aesthetic reasons mainly. This reflects a deeper attitude I have about the Internet, art, and information.

I suggest we are entering a new model of human relations, one based on the macro level of exchange, not the micro level. The individual will benefit from this system just as she benefited from the old system; she may even benefit more. When information/art/work is shared by the media, libraries, universities, publications, and organizations more fluidly and freely, there is less emphasis on individual compensation and more on communal benefit. Pictures, photographs, and images are floating around everywhere. If you wanted to track down every "thief" who re-posted an image on the Internet, you would be swimming against the current not with it. The current is in favor of shared knowledge and shared art.

It will take us some time to re-imagine ourselves with fewer boundaries. Because that's what this all points to. The boundaries are dissolving all around us, geographical, political, cultural, racial, economic. The mutual exchange of ideas, images and texts will benefit us all, as it already has. We will only see this when we see it as giving work/information/art to each other, rather than taking it.

I am an artist myself. I write novels. But I've chosen not to pursue the path of traditional publishing (A) because it is crumbling and (B) because I feel I am part of a different economic model. I'd rather give my content away for free. What is a publisher but a protector, someone to handle my money? I don't need a publisher. What I need is an audience. When I find an audience, I will get paid by myself.

The tectonic plates are shifting. We will soon come to realize that the proliferation of an artist's work is worthwhile to everyone, artist, community and God. (I don't believe in God but I think He will benefit too.) So called "property rights" in an online world is a chimera.

Silvio Gaggi's scholarly work elucidates these truths. In From Text to Hypertext , the distinction between print and online worlds is made evident:

"Walter J. Ong argues that 'print creates a new sense of the private ownership of words' and that a 'resentment at plagiarism' develops with writing. Hypertext, in contrast, reinforces a sense of learning more as a communal than an individual endeavor. It creates situations in which individual contributions are likely to get lost within the conversation as a whole, and it creates new kinds of communities emancipated from physical, geographical, or political boundaries."

This book written in 1997 presages much of what is going on today. The author uses the term "hypertext" to describe the textual networks of the Internet. While that word sounds outdated, the gist of it has relevance. Hypertext is shared text, linked text, common text. Blogging is a form of hypertext. From their niches blogs are woven into the greater body of the Net. Blogging is also a conversation. Search engines determine the relevance and popularity of a site based on its links. Complex algorithms pick up on strong and weak links and thereby rank the page. This essentially means that the search engine, that great, sacred filter of online knowledge, values conversation and exchange over private ownership. In essence, what is shared is of higher value than what is not.

Silvio talks about the two mindsets behind the print and online world:

"Individuals accustomed to an ethical system based on the book regard any infringement on their authorial rights or any use of a published text, without appropriate permission, as a moral and legal wrong . . . In contrast, individuals who have become accustomed to hypertextual exchange tend to regard any impediment to free exchange as a serious wrong. The free development and dissemination of knowledge is more important than always giving precise credit where credit is due."

And here:

"Richard A. Lanham says that 'electronic information seems to resist ownership', and and Landow argues that 'from the point of view of the author of hypertext, for whom collaboration and sharing are of the essence of 'writing,' restrictions on the availability of the text, like prohibitions against copying or linking, appear absurd, indeed immoral, constraints".

So where do we stand on Internet Copyright Law? Should I feel guilty for posting the image above this article? I'm looking for answers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pish, Posh said Hieronymus Bosch

One of my favorite childhood books, "Pish, Posh said Hieronymus Bosch," by Nancy Willard and illustrated by the Dillons.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

James Joyce

Whether we know it or not, Joyce's court is, like Dante's or Tolstoy's, always in session. The initial and determining act of judgment in his work is the justification of the commonplace. Other writers had labored tediously to portray it, but no one knew what the commonplace really was until Joyce had written. There is nothing like Joyce's commonplace in Tolstoy, where the characters, however humble, live dramatically and instill wisdom or tragedy in each other. Joyce was the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence. For a long time his intention was misunderstood: it was assumed he must be writing satire. How else justify so passionate an interest in the lower middle class?

Marxist critics leaped to attack him, and Joyce said gently to his friend Eugene Jolas, "I don't know why they attack me. Nobody in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds." To look into a city was common enough after Zola, but to find Ulysses there was reckless and impudent. It was an idea quite alien, too, to Irish writers of the time. Yeats was aristocratic and demanded distinctions between men; Joyce was all for removing them. Shaw was willing to accept any man so long as he was eloquent, thinking in fits and starts, without Shaw's desire to be emphatic or convincing . . .

Joyce's discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.

To come to this conclusion Joyce had to see joined what others had held separate: the point of view that life is unspeakable and to be exposed, and the point of view that it is ineffable and to be distilled. Nature may be a horrible document, or a secret revelation; all may be resolvable into brute body, or into mind and mental components. Joyce lived between the antipodes and above them: his brutes show a marvelous capacity for brooding, his pure minds find bodies remorselessly stuck to them. To read Joyce is to see reality rendered without the simplification of conventional divisions.

Richard Ellmann, from the introduction to James Joyce

Commentary: First of all what strikes me about this passage is the remark about Marxist critics defaming Joyce. It seems that Marxist critics have a history of picking on literature as a bourgeois establishment. Just a couple weeks ago it was my luck to discover some thinly-veiled Marxist blogs defaming the present literary luminary James Wood. But that's a small observation and perhaps a hard connection to make.

Ellmann's James Joyce is considered a model biography, second only to Boswell's Life of Johnson. I'm reading them both to gain an understanding of the form. I plan to sit down to write a biography of the celebrated author Richard Stern in the next year, after a series of interviews take place.

But let's get back to the passage. What stirs me about it? Ellmann talks about Joyce's "justification of the commonplace." Why does the commonplace need justification? These questions are open. Because we have come so far from Joyce, it may be difficult to see the pattern of relation. Right now the individual, every individual, is heroic, even God-like. I suggest this attitude by our IPhones and IPods and endless products we arraign ourselves with to show our importance to the world. Today we make ourselves into heroes, whether it is by writing memoirs or by finding communities to stand out in. James Joyce and Modernism, Ellmann might posit were he alive today, is where this attitude of self-heroism begins.

And then, the last part of the passage I have reproduced here is also enlightening. Ellmann writes, "the point of view that life is unspeakable and to be exposed, and the point of view that it is ineffable and to be distilled." I like this even though I'm not fully sure I know what he means by it. He seems to imply that we have a means to express the inexpressible through art. And further, that Joyce portrayed human reality through complex mixtures of mind and body.

That the ordinary is extraordinary is easy enough to understand intellectually, but to truly grasp it is to be arrested in a moment of life and realize beauty, or sadness, or shame, or light, coming out of everything.

Cheers, and don't forget to Stumble me!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Michel de Montaigne

It was Montaigne's conviction that in spite of the range of human diversity, there is a basic unity to human experience. "Each man bears the entire form of man's estate." And if such is the case, then writing about oneself is not a private, narcissistic act but will strike a chord of grateful recognition in readers everywhere. Montaigne's unique talent for communicating himself proved the point: we now have thousands of verbal self-portraits in print, and few have inspired readers to identify themselves with the writer nearly as much as Montaigne's.

Part of the reason for its success was Montaigne's ability to see himself as an average human being. Of course, he was scarcely average in intelligence and literary gifts. But he regarded the ups and downs and pleasures of his daily life as typical; he chose to write not in Latin, the learned language of his time, but in conversational, vernacular French; and he minimized his singular career (a valued diplomat used by kings, and twice mayor of Bordeaux), opting instead for a tone of ironic self-deprecation. This grew partly out of his view of the human condition.

Montaigne regarded humanity as constantly in flux, vain, ashamed of itself, and contradictory. Rather than condemning people, however, he recommended a generous self-forgiveness. He preferred not to aim so high (there is little of the mystical, transcendent, or tragic in this author) but to steer a middle course. His thought evolved from an early expression of Stoicism (including the concern about dying well) to skepticism and eventually a brand of epicureanism (giving counsel on the art of living well).

One of the most radical of Montaigne's practices was to follow his thoughts no matter where they led him. The result conveyed the spontaneity of mental discovery, on the one hand, and a heedless lack of structure, on the other. In "Of Books" and elsewhere, he made a case for the common reader, the non scholar, who will simply say what he or she thinks about a book. His literary preferences were for Senecan conclusions rather than windy lead-ups, for language that is to the point, not bothering with elegance but "rough and contemptuous". His own sentences were sinewy, dry, yet succulent; they explode like pomegranate seeds on the tongue.

Phillip Lopate, from The Art of the Personal Essay

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Nor is it always in the most distinguished achievements that men's virtues or vices may be best discerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person's real character more than the greatest sieges or the most important battles.

Plutarch, qtd. James Boswell in Life of Johnson

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Robert Louis Stevenson

Extreme busyness . . . is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake . . . they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, qtd. Phillip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay

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